An excerpt from Devi Yesodharan’s debut novel – ‘Empire’.

Day in the Chola court Empire a novel inspired by one of Indias greatest kings
Features Book Excerpt Monday, September 04, 2017 - 17:07

At the time of the story Rajendra Chola has made a reputation for himself with his conquests of the eastern coastline and his absolute control over the naval trade. Under him, there are plenty of jobs to be had on the ships and docks. His port cities stretch themselves across the coasts and massive new temples thrust up to the sky. His ambitions are unsatisfied yet. He wants to conquer lands in the ten directions of the empire. He wants to surpass his father, a man who called himself the Divine King of Kings, Rajaraja.

The sun is a stone hammer, the people bow their heads against the heat. It is an unhappy, heavy summer. The war announcement has been proclaimed from the palace gates, and the news carried into the villages and other towns by the palace criers, messengers on horseback.

Ever since the war announcement, the king’s receiving hall has been crowded with people. The courtyard outside buzzes with an anxious hum that fills his mornings. People come seeking clarity, explanation, reassurance, often putting forth the same questions as the people who came the day before. The king receives everyone on open court days, even the angry citizens who don’t listen to anything he says and are only waiting for their turn to speak.

A navy sailor is now here with his wife, showing some extremely bad judgement, telling the king that he deserves a promotion from his captain before he goes on the next war.

‘I was a rower for three summers, and now he has me replacing rotten planks on the ship. I deserve more after all these years of my loyalty. He needs to give me a chance. I have been with him for so long.’

When I first started attending these court hearings I quite enjoyed them: the king is an open, sympathetic listener, and receives everyone who comes to see him, sometimes continuing the hearings well into the evening.

I have seen many things here – for instance young women who think that if the king got a good look at their bare breasts, he wouldn’t be able to resist them as consorts, and a naked young lady once had to be wrestled to the ground as she ran up the steps. Some of them oil their skin beforehand so they slip the grasp of the guards. Older women turn up with cooked dishes for him. Drunk men come to give him advice on naval warfare.

Still, I couldn’t help but feel that the king’s pronouncements, when they came down, were like righteous thunderbolts. After hearing the petitioner, the king would whisper to the courtiers. A courtier would then summon the bureaucrats seated in the long office behind us with a bell: one ring for the most junior, more rings for more seniority. They would hand the official a piece of leaf paper with the king’s judgement.

I enjoyed the hearings even though I stood for hours, my feet ached and we waved the flies off our faces through the day.

But soon I noticed a pattern that troubled me. The king would listen, and pronounce his judgement, assigning an official to contact the offender and resolve the matter. If a farmer’s crop had failed, an assessor was dispatched to check and compensate for the damage. For a woman being beaten – this got me angriest, the women who turned up sometimes with their eyes swollen shut and their skin blurred into shades of purple and black, and I could see that this made the king angry too, sometimes he was unable to control his emotion, his voice shaking slightly – he would order a whipping for the man and ask the girl to return to her family.

But life is untidy, and not so easily fixed.

This city is a hierarchy, men standing on others’ backs to grow taller, and by reason then some people must have their breath crushed out for others to thrive. This is a place where one can tell a person’s standing at a glance: in the thickness of the gold thread in his clothes (or its complete absence), the nature of the headdress, the titles called out, the workmanship of the jewellery worn – a thing impossible to fake unlike the colour of the metal.

And you don’t even need all that. You know those at the bottom by their expressions, the fixed gazes and tension in their bones. It’s the pose of animals ready to take a beating, bodies that know pain and deprivation but come today hoping for fairness. The splinters under the skin of their faces: I recognize this so well I wonder about myself.

Despite his hunger for justice I see that it’s not the king that is all-powerful, it’s the hierarchy itself. He lords over and is also victim to its structure. He cannot always free these people.

So sometimes, the fallout of his pronouncements come back to us like a bird returning with a worm in its beak. We hear from a previous complainant, an officer whose disagreement with his regiment commander the king had resolved, but who on the next voyage had been found looting the ship’s goods and is now permanently out of the navy. He is beggared and now the king can do nothing for him although he protests his innocence. Or we hear of the battered woman whose husband followed her to her parents’ home, his back stinging with the king’s punishment, and squeezed the last breath out of her throat.

The oarsman before us now, complaining about his ship captain: his pride is frayed, and he cannot see the cliff towards which he is running. A scribe is taking notes, all of which will become part of the public record. The king should have stopped this man from talking, I think, from insulting his captain so publicly. He should have protected him from the nastiness spinning out of his mouth and winding around his own neck. What looks like sympathy is sometimes its opposite.

Each petitioner comes, speaks. My feet swell in the heat, my calves hurt. Outside, the crows also caw their complaints but they at least don’t yet have admission.

A mosquito settles on the back of my leg and feeds. As evening gathers the itch swells and becomes unbearable. Unable to hold in any longer, I bend and scratch furiously.

The king leans back in his chair and looks at me. ‘I hope you don’t have lice,’ he says.

‘No, my king, that was a mosquito bite.’

He frowns at nothing as a server appears with fruits on a palm leaf. He helps himself to mangoes and spiced guavas. ‘Lice is a constant problem, it spreads fast within the court,’ he says. ‘Adthul battles it the way we battle enemy armies. The guards and soldiers visit women, not necessarily clean ones, and arrive for work infested. Adthul now schedules a weekly bath with scalding hot water for each one of them.’

I’ve heard of this. The handmaidens and I are exempted from the baths, but are subjected to weekly inspections.

‘I have often found,’ the king continues, ‘that an itch is worse than pain. It would be a great weapon, to be able to control these insects and have them descend on enemy armies, so that they drop their weapons all together to scratch themselves. Imagine a war won with no blood.’ He chews on a guava, his eyes dreamy.

It’s when he is tired that the king grows talkative. Speaking to me distracts him from his exhaustion. It doesn’t matter what he says for I will tell no one.

An old man is now waiting to be heard. His voice is querulous, his face drawn and thin. The king speaks deferentially: ‘Tell me, father.’ He calls all old people that, I have seen how it charms them.

‘I have a problem with my neighbour, my king,’ he says. He stands some distance away, the guards stop them from approaching closer: too many of them want to touch the king to bless his head and kiss his feet.

The old man’s rheumy eyes flit around. Of course he drinks too much, lives alone. I guess this from his uncombed hair splaying in all directions, the crumpled veshti whose knot seems to be loosening as he speaks. The reek of him travels up the steps, towards us.

‘My neighbour thinks my house is on his land,’ he says. ‘We have argued about it since we were young men. Now that we are both old, every morning, he creeps into my yard, he comes as close to my door as he possibly can and squats. He takes a shit, a shit he has saved up through the day before. I have to step over it every morning.’ His chin trembles.

The words hang in the startled silence of the court. People who weren’t paying any attention now fix their eyes on him. Their curious gazes are little darts, saving him up for later storytelling as the old man goes on to describe the ‘consistency’ of the man’s insult, a daily brown mound that is taller every time – ‘so much rice this man eats just for me’ – on and on until finally the king must raise his hand, stopping him, violating his own rule of not interrupting the complainant.

‘Yes,’ he says, his voice firm, and looks towards the clerk, gives instructions. Check the land records, and if the land does indeed belong to the neighbour, fine him the area the old man lives on as penalty for misbehaviour. And a whipping for the insult. The bell rings once.

The king has to worry about lice and where the city’s people shit; this is what it’s like to be a god on earth. The problems he can fix permanently, despite all his good intentions, are mostly of this variety.

Excerpted with the permission of Juggernaut Books from the book “Empire” by Devi Yesodharan

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